The sharp-eyed amongst you may have noticed that I recently added a new page to this blog (see the link in the top menu). As it says on the page, Butterflies 2018 is a chronological list of the first time I’ve spotted each British butterfly species during 2018. This isn’t like my Birding 2018 challenge, where I’m deliberately trying to see 200 species in a single year – 2018 just happens to have been a very good year for me for seeing more butterfly species than ever before (bear in mind that I’ve only been living in Britain three years, so I haven’t had a lifetime of butterfly watching, and there are plenty more species I’ve not yet seen). And I figured it would be a good idea to have a chronological list as a personal aide-memoire, so I know which butterflies to look out for in which months in future years.
I blogged about the Holly blue butterfly (Celastrina argiolus) back in May but I’ve since read some really interesting info about this lovely little butterfly and have some new photos to share as well.
My information comes from the book I’m currently reading, which I highly recommend – it’s Wonderland: A year of Britain’s wildlife day by day by Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss. The entry from 13 August is about the Holly blue and answered a query I had about why I’ve recently been seeing so many Holly blues on Ivy plants rather than on Holly.
It turns out the Holly blue has two generations per year: as their name suggests, the females from the first generation lay their eggs on Holly plants and that’s what the first generation of caterpillars munch on. Then, once those caterpillars have pupated, they emerge as butterflies from around mid July, and the females from that second generation lay their eggs on Ivy, as that’s what the second generation caterpillars eat.
I’ve also been wondering why I seem to be seeing so many more Holly blues this year and Wonderland has the answer to that too:
These fluctuations [in population], over a cycle of five or six years or so, are caused by a small parasitic wasp called Listrodomus, which injects the caterpillars with a long sting-like ovipositor. The Listrodomus grub lives inside the caterpillar, but keeps it alive long enough to allow it to pupate, emerging later from the chrysalis. As wasp populations increase, they reduce the Holly blues. Fewer butterflies mean fewer opportunities for the wasps and so, in turn, wasp numbers fall too. This allows the butterflies to build up again, and that’s why over a span of several years our sightings of Holly blues go up and down.
‘The quickness of the wing deceives the eye.’ So write Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss in their brilliant book Wonderland: A year of Britain’s wildlife day by day (John Murray, London, 2017). They’re describing those butterflies that ‘fly so haphazardly and so fast that they are little more than hallucinations, a flicker of motion at the edge of our vision, making us question whether we’ve seen one at all.’
The Small copper (Lycaena phlaeas) is one such butterfly but, I find, with a pinch of stealth, a sprinkle of luck and a tablespoonful of patience, it will settle and even pose for photos. And the outcome is no hallucination but rather a delicious creation, even a gourmet would admire.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, last Sunday’s birding didn’t only produce some nice bird sightings, it also featured an abundance of beautiful butterflies, including two newbies for me.
I’ve been keeping an eye out for Clouded yellows (Colias croceus) for a couple of months now, as these immigrants can fly in from the southern parts of Europe and even north Africa as early as June. The occasional sighting has been reported in my area, with one being seen at Lavernock as recently as last Friday, but I hadn’t managed to spot one myself … until last Sunday.
Ace birder Gareth spotted the first as we walked along the coastal path at Rumney Great Wharf, on the eastern side of Cardiff, and then a second was spotted soon afterwards. And then, as we retraced our steps back to the starting point of our walk, I spied two more, obviously a male and female engaged in their pre-mating aerial display. Luckily, their focus on mating meant I was able to get some open-wing photos, which, though not particularly sharp, are quite difficult with this butterfly, as it usually zooms along at quite a rate of knots.
The second butterfly, which was again spotted by Gareth, was a first-ever sighting for me. This is a Wall (Lasiommata megera, until recently called a Wall brown), so named because of its liking for sunning itself on rocks, banks and, you guessed it, walls (though this one was not living up to its name!).
This particular Wall had been in the wars and was missing half of one wing and a third of the other, but was still flying well enough. I’m not sure I would have spotted it myself as, in flight, it looked very much like a small Meadow brown or a Gatekeeper, so I’m particularly grateful for Gareth’s sharp eyes.
I’ve had a fabulous summer of butterfly sightings, with my species total now on 34, but will these two be the final two species I see for 2018? Only time will tell.
A google search on “Painted Ladies” will take you to San Francisco, as this is the name used by Americans to describe the local Victorian and Edwardian buildings, particularly houses, that have been repainted in multiple colours to highlight the details of their architectural style.
Britain’s Painted ladies have also been painted in multiple colours but not by human hands – these are the masterpieces of Mother Nature.
And they are not static – they fly, and not just around our local meadows and gardens – these beauties fly all the way from North Africa and the Middle East to dazzle us with their kaleidoscope of colour.
Some years – 2009 was one – these butterflies arrive in huge numbers – and I do mean huge. That summer, tens of millions of Painted ladies arrived in Britain and the skies were filled with fluttering colour. I hope I live to see such a sight.
The flower of the moment is Fleabane (Pulicaria dysenterica) or, at least it is at Lavernock Nature Reserve.
I’ve read that Fleabane usually grows in ditches and damp meadows so, despite the recent drought conditions, I guess there must be water somewhere below the wildflower meadows at Lavernock, as they are currently awash with these bright golden flowers. And, at a time when most other wildflowers have dried up and died off, the Fleabane is providing a much-needed source of pollen and nectar for butterflies and other assorted mini-beasties.
I had never been to RSPB Dungeness until my visit with my friend Jill two weeks ago but, if you can get past the fact that there’s a nuclear power station buzzing away just down the road, then you should be able to appreciate what a wonderful place it is. (British people seem to take nuclear power stations for granted but, as a nuclear-free New Zealander, I still find them quite scary places and really rather menacing!)
This is a unique landscape of low rolling shingle banks, interspersed with patchy areas of low scrub and large shallow pools – it’s water bird heaven!
Our first highlight was seeing the Common terns that breed at Dungeness. Terns are such agile flyers and to see their young fledglings was a real treat.
Eqyptian geese have also bred here, and we saw a pair with two well-grown goslings.
I had my best-ever views of a Snipe that decided to come out and poke around the muddy edges of one of the pools. These are normally such secretive birds so it was a real pleasure to watch this bird foraging.
And the Snipe was joined by not one but two Wood sandpipers.
Each of the six hides on the two-mile-long main trail offers different views, different birds, and, after motoring down to a cafe near the lighthouse (and that power station), we also stopped off on our return to check out the two shorter trails and hides on the opposite side of the road. Here we had good, though distant views of a Greenshank and a Bar-tailed godwit. Cracking!
As well as the birds, the wildflowers added lots of pretty colour to our wander, and we were entertained as we walked by large numbers of beautiful butterflies and debonaire dragonflies, though it wasn’t quite so pleasant watching an Emperor dragon biting the wings off a Gatekeeper.
Here’s my bird list for the day (not including a lot of smaller birds that were flitting about the bushes while I was marvelling at the butterflies): Teal, Lesser black-backed gull, Tufted duck, Mallard, Herring gull, Common tern (with young), Cormorant, Sandwich tern, Common sandpiper, Wood sandpiper (2), Snipe, Egyptian goose (and goslings), Ringed plover, Pochard, Little grebe, Great crested grebe, Lapwing,Coot, Dunlin, Goldeneye, Reed warbler, Redshank, Woodpigeon, Oystercatcher, Grey heron, Great white egret (2), Greylag goose, Mute swan, Black-headed gull, Shelduck, Shoveler, Carrion crow, Swallow, House martin, Greenshank, Bar-tailed godwit, Pied wagtail, Gadwall and Magpie.
Just before we move away from this week of butterfly blogs, I do want to put in a plug for Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count that is happening right now. It runs from 20 July to 12 August, so there’s still plenty of time to join in, and it’s super easy. Even if you’re not too crash hot on identifying butterflies, I’m sure you can count from one to, say, twenty, and there’s a handy pictorial chart you can easily download to help you work out which flutterby is which. And, for the smartphoners, which is probably most of you, there’s even a handy app you can download to help identify and record your sightings – though I do think you should at least try to work them out for yourselves.
And if you won’t take my word for the fact that it’s a truly wonderful feeling to sit quietly somewhere and watch and count butterflies, then maybe you’ll listen to / watch Sir David Attenborough.
This is the last of the seven new butterflies I saw during my seven days in Sussex and the second from my walk around Seaford Head (see yesterday’s blog for the first). This stunner used to be known as the Chalkhill blue and is now the Chalk hill blue – I haven’t been able to find out why the change was made but the name does indicate their preferred location, the grasslands found on the chalk hills and downs of southern England. (Its scientific name, Polyommatus coridon, hasn’t changed.)
Luckily, the two butterflies I saw were both males – I say luckily because the female looks an awful lot like a Brown argus / Common blue female, and we all know how tricky those are to distinguish.
Apparently, these stunning males are often seen in large numbers, many hundreds together, flying low over vegetation in search of females. What a glorious sight that would be!
Nine days ago, when I was staying with my friend Jill in East Sussex, we decided to re-enact a walk we had done on 12 May 2017, a wildlife walk led by Michael Blencowe of the Sussex Wildlife Trust, an expert lepidopterist and co-author of The Butterflies of Sussex.
On that previous occasion the day was cool, windy and sometimes wet so we didn’t see any butterflies. This time Britain was in the grip of a scorching heatwave so it was almost too hot and dry for butterflies….
Almost, but not quite. As luck would have it, I managed to spot two more new butterflies this day, and I almost missed the first as it was so tiny. This is the very appropriately named Small blue (Cupido minimus), Britain’s smallest butterfly and one that is becoming increasingly scarce.
These lovelies are often found in small colonies, in areas of scrub and grassland near where their food plant grows. I don’t recall seeing any Kidney vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria) during our walk through the Seaford Head Local Nature Reserve but, luckily for the Small blue and for me, it must have been there.